Sources of variation in maternal allocation to offspring during lactation in the Weddell seal
Macdonald, Kaitlin Rose
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Variation in the allocation of energy to reproduction by mothers can have fitness consequences for mothers and offspring. Diverse features of a mother, and annual environmental fluctuations may affect the amount of energy a mother allocates to offspring and may obscure age-specific patterns that are of interest when evaluating predictions made from existing life history theory. To properly evaluate possible sources of variation, especially age-specific variation in maternal allocation, analyses of data for known-age mothers with a wide range of ages, diverse reproductive histories, and multiple measures of allocation to reproduction are needed. We used data from a long-term study of Weddell seals that were individually marked as pups and monitored annually and a Bayesian hierarchical modeling framework to characterize age-specific variation in maternal allocation and test predictions about age-specific variation while considering additional maternal features that might influence maternal allocation. Based on masses for 311 mothers and associated pups from 2002 to 2016, we found that maternal allocation was moderately associated with maternal age and strongly associated with maternal body mass at birth of her pup. We found that heavier mothers lost a greater proportion of mass during the entire lactation period but that the efficiency with which mothers transferred this mass to their pups was lower than that of lighter individuals. The proportion of mass lost by a mother during the entire lactation period was greater for mothers that had reproduced the previous year and for those who started reproducing young, which suggests that individual quality and perhaps experience are determinants of maternal allocation in this species. Our study did not find support for our predictions that older mothers would allocate more body reserves, be more efficient at transferring mass during early lactation, or alter their behavior in ways that would improve mass transfer efficiency during late lactation, relative to prime-age mothers. The large variation we found in energy allocation to pups translates to large variation in pup weaning mass. Our results highlight that maternal multiple features should be considered when evaluating patterns of age-specific variation in maternal allocation.